The Desert by Brandon Shimoda (The Song Cave, 2018)
WE START ALL OVER, WHEN
WE ALL START OVER, become
As when we were shot
Through anesthetic light
And brought to life
Within the sentence of existence
(from “Transit Center”)
I’ve been thinking of when I was in my early teens, budding with a sense of places other than my own. My mother, sister and I took a trip from our small town in rural Maine to Las Vegas. It was where my half brother and his mother (my father’s first wife, so technically my stepmother) lived. I have many memories of that trip, my first trip to the desert. They are swirling dreams of half-images and sparsely-detailed landscapes filling distinct events and moments, incredible spotlights of heat, burning feet walking across the blacktop, the aridity and that full, quiet brightness. Since that holiday, I have been connected with, contracted to, the desert. It calls me fully and regularly, like a drug or a community, whispers of my name, or someone else’s, spread out across a wind-like continuum on the edge of my consciousness. I have been to numerous deserts and other dry places. I have slept in them. I have walked through them. Driven. Hiked. Sweated out. Hallucinated. Challenged my own sense of reality. The ongoing relationship with them has been fortified with romantic cultural ideas of the place: the boundary before a (manifest) destiny; the lawless, free-spirited land of opportunity; the desolate sense of the ancient and barren and life-beyond-life-itself. Even now, recalling these desert frameworks and conditionings, I get the urge to drop everything and go. It is a good feeling. I hope for it to continue.
a larger purple, the most
sanitary I follow
I don’t remember
when I’m in it
It is happening
The Desert sits in front of me and it’s a large book. It takes up space. Brandon Shimoda has written a large book. It comes out of a lineage of desert writers. Poets. Essayists. Novelists. Many voices who have tried to grasp the ideas within an iconic, untouchable space. A space where immersion is forced. There is a binary of presence: you are within or you are out. There is before, during, and after, a narrative that is neither linear nor modular, but something more holistic, something more total, something that vibrates and stations within and beyond. I believe that The Desert, Shimoda’s work, a follow-up to his and others’ previous work, captures this sense of storytelling and world-telling. I believe it is work because it indicates a distinct, timely sense of effort in collecting, projecting, and residing within the writing of this space. I believe it is more than that too: it is a deeply personal book that throws the world about within its confines, its limitations, its own sense of knowing and unknowing. The Desert as I have read it maintains a sense of “the desert” as much as it feels like the waking life of Shimoda. A straightforward statement in general, and in the context of poetry, perhaps, but in some awing way there are the contractions of idealism and a precision of perfection here that is difficult to wrap my mind around. How does a book feel whole and complete, while retaining its otherness all the same? Is this merely a question of ignorance on the part of me, the reader, or is there something transmutable in the desert core, the same desert that leads to loss and death as it does to survival and humility? The Desert wraps the spectrum up nicely while, enduring the juxtapositions and serving as an excellent reading experience.
Black tarantulas. People sitting around a fire
Beneath enormous cottonwoods
The color of a Christian—pious, unresponsive
Faces in the smoke
(from “Blind Children”)
It is visceral: crackling echoes of swollen canyon and indomitable plains matched with acutely intimate campfires and vague splashes of humanity while housesitting. All is a morphic process here, and Shimoda, a literary seer or sage, whose voice stays present and distant (like the echo that careens around a corner or over and beyond a horizon), offers the thread. Seven sections of the book make up seven separate gazes towards the desert. As I mentioned, addressing them as a linear causality is not rewarding, and might not even be effective. Instead, it is calming to note that there are sections just as there are mountains: change over vast periods of time; growth and shrinking; movements in and out; relatively intact spaces of pattern and trend. The book is sequenced to lead the reader toward Shimoda’s desert by way of a daily, existential practice. He lived in Tucson from 2011-2014. He wrote. That is the setup. That is the otherworldly sense of space and time. What else do you need to know? When you, like anyone else, visits the desert, what do you need to know? Much of the pleasure and pain of the landscape, those qualities that make it knowable, that make it attractive and repulsive and, essentially, unforgettable, are intrinsically personal. Shimoda’s notes, his explorations, his positives and negatives, provide a sense of bearing, a sense of longing, and a sense of pacing. Time is a very real, and remarkable tool to be used and be applied in The Desert but only by alternatively going forward, backward, and through the text in multiple, fragmented visitations have I found “Time” to be everything I wanted, everything that completed the experience. Like the vastness of the desert in its many variable forms, Shimoda’s work challenges the reader in its sense of approachability, in its sense of wander, and the resulting emotional complexity and confusion.
I looked at everyone
I wanted everyone
To be where they were
(from “Evening Oracle” in “Bride”)
Perhaps I have found The Desert (as a symbol, as a form, as a specific type of literary process) to be the ideal container for Shimoda’s translucent, migratory poetry. A large statement, but one I can’t help but ponder. The cause and effect between Shimoda’s voiced (penned) experience balances with the dynamic totality of the subject matter. All the searing, all of the heat, all the illumination flows volcanically (liquidous and hellishly solidified one and the same) into a state of permanence that renders each poem, each story or moment, into a chiseled, pressured appearance. Pressured into being, into reliance, into expectation, while marvelously counter to the instability of societal space and time. Moments of the poet’s life that lead to insight are to be trusted, taken with confidence and even, remarkably, with joy. The book is not a book of joy in a direct sense, but the spirit contained within the book, that inextricable sense of freedom and security, finds an outcry of joy and awe all the same. But the book is also larger than that, as it needs to be. Shimoda’s experiences, the spectra of them, contain scattered layers of wisdom as well: the result of the hallucinatory and the imagined, the explored of the available, the induction of the potential. The desert is a space of learning and knowing and so is The Desert.
cut rectangles in the floor dug holes in the dirt
to stay cool
in July folded their bodies
like paper fell asleep
in the holes rivers evaporated. The prisoners disintegrated
Not even their secrets
(from “Gila River”)
Th beginning of the book’s postscript reads: “The photography on the cover is of three Japanese Americans, taken during the Harvest Festival at the Tule Lake concentration camp, October 31, 1942. The photographer was Francis Stewart, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority [. . .] A segregation center opened within Tule Lake, July 15, 1943. The prison within the prison—with enhanced security, fortified fence, increased guard towards, 1000 military police—incarcerated individuals who were considered disloyal. Stewart took a number of photographs at Tule Lake that capture what I have written elsewhere as the perverse psychosis that is settler colonialism in the United States.” (177) The reality here, that part of The Desert is an examination of this history of internment/incarceration/antagonism within the more contemporary colonialism of and within the United States, is a reality that The Desert is a book actualizing much more than Shimoda’s daily logs, his written practice, his fueled language. It is the fuel itself: the histories of marginalization and oppression, the systemic imprisonment and prejudice, and the sense of other that has and continues to pervade an American expanse of freedom, symbolically and legally.
“Not sure why I keep prefacing every email with mention of the desert, though the affirmation feels necessary. This is where we are, this landscape which feels as congenital to our condition as it does alien. I still have little sense of what it is, what it does . . .” (91)
To examine Shimoda’s book is to get a sense that, as I mentioned above, there is much contradiction and counter between that open existence of the desert. To be free affords exploitation. To be open allows room for the most closed. The desert is a space of profound knowing and unknowing all the same. And it is a space where the bleakest and most hateful instances can find their own pocket to run dry and remain echoes of their former selves. And further, it is a landscape where that history, etched into the landscape, can also be approached. Is it because nothing much lasts for very long in the desert? Is it because of that harshness that we can identify and blink apart? Is history on an incessant, unbearable loop, or is it actually bearable, actually tolerable, pulsing along and compact enough to grasp? I find Shimoda’s interpretation, integration, and the resulting persistence through the realities of the desert, including but not limited to the tyranny of the prison camps of the desert (and beyond the desert) to be one of mature acceptance. That is not to say The Desert represents the desert (as symbol and as physical space) as easy and accommodating! But that is full and true and helpful as a mode to conduct explorations of and beyond the self, of and beyond the poetry, of and beyond the imprint of language in time (however Time may be formed and interpreted). I think on this book and imagine my own attraction to the deserts I’ve visited before and have yet to visit, and I wonder about their fullness and how they might help me rather than just blindly attract, and help others too, and where that lived experience can lead to new spaces of knowing, growth, and wisdom.
Levon Helm by Jason Morris (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Look: tiny orange
butterflies crown clover
every angle for
the nectar, their
little jewelers’ lupes
eyeing clovers’ coronas
it is these animals to whom I owe
a debt of gratitude larger than poetry
(from “Raw Umber”)
What’s in a name? Music, insight, courage, and a fame matched by death and history and the instantaneous. Levon Helm the individual, the musician, the icon, positively notorious and storied, is as mysteriously absent from Jason Morris’s first full-length as he might be considerably present. There is difficulty in knowing the truth, and perhaps as a ghost or an analogy we might find the figure’s energies throbbing and glissading through and across the pages by default, by knowing or unknowing, by potential. Either way, or both ways, Morris’s voice is what fills this book first and foremost and it’s his voice that resonates with a severe beauty of scurry and scrawl from cover to cover.
A quality that holds Morris’s book together through this book, as a collection, is its patchwork of diverse senses of self and the voices that represent those senses. Morris as poet approaches a documented world through an applied plethora of lenses, angles, and curiosities. Subject matter is scattered and wizened by its range; as a collection, his poems are pervasive and capable of maintaining a subtly inquisitive purity. Emotion is balanced and arcing in concision. Heights of explorative hyperbolism, through joy or fear or trauma or distaste, rarely find a presence. Morris’s work is a soft glow, a resonant hum, the realm of the residence of the voice in a lively and respectable world. This paradigm, consistent with the Californian bioregionalism I’ve most recently been reminded of by way of Schelling, is utterly pleasant and hypnotically realized. There is a trapping and a phantasmagoric engulf that sways and docks the reader into the poetic bob. Morris’s language is a whispering throat, a delicate pendulum, a soft tide, built upon music and inventory.
To choose not to
pick up phone & scroll anyway through
Dear old dreary daylit world, dull
repetition of daily news, look up instead to see
a world newly cathected, autochthonous in
clouds, in ones and threes.
(from “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”)
It is fascinating to find Morris’s poetry in 2018. It sits extensively from the 1970s or 80s, echoing along the decades and gathering evidence of a world slowly creeping. Technological advances are more humdrum and ordinary than explosive and shocking. The search engine is as commonplace as the hummingbird. The social media as blandly bountiful as the juicy red cherry and the spitting out of the pit. Technology, the digital, the contemporary where we find ourselves does not have to be of significant consequence, is how I read its acting space within Morris’s poems. It might be anticlimactic or slightly stark in a mild burden of melodrama. But it comes and goes, lifted meditatively from the poet’s grasp. A flighty assurance of this temporal non-reliance is filled with equal parts quirk and mythic. “Google” meets “Demeter” in the same span of the 80 pages that make up Levon Helm.
What else makes up the book’s mythologies? The inspirations of the young poet’s language make brief but intentional appearances: through Mike Watt & Thurston Moore to Lyn Hejinian to Creeley & Olson to Clark Coolidge to Dashiell Hammett, there’s the presence of a musical and literary world scraping by the notebooks and moments of Morris and his incisive glaze of language. And beyond the questions of Sonic Youth, beyond the tracks and the chords and the concerts and the stanzas and the books and the readings, or perhaps, ultimately, from within, the cast of characters expands to include those individuals of the biographic present, the alive and the nearby, those close and of community, familial and intimate, resonantly personal while all the time brushed across the canvas in tiny, expiring bubbles. Morris’s imagery of voice is hurried and tireless, yet the persistence of intentionality indicates a stationing and situating of the self, a ghosting of the self, lapsing and relapsing through the daily experience.
What haunts me (& maybe “Providence,” too) is an oblivion of memory; that the loss of the bits might prefigure a larger loss. By taping this message & making for it a memorial of decimated piano chords, tape-hiss & distortion; by putting it right in the middle of the album, the music recognizes that. Memory is an oblivion in which only ephemera floats to the surface.
A poetics grasping collage by the throat, wringing collection like a towel to loosen the liquidous core contained within, Morris’s pitter-pattering lines fall into place but not without a determined effort of work and challenge. His writing contains a fullness of demonstrated craft and revision. As a collection of poems, this significant investment of the poet may not benefit the reader with any immediacy, and yet there is a feeling, a shadowy current that follows each poem, indicating the historical treatments contributing to the book’s final form. Language of obscurity, references of placement and displacement, allusions and quotations determinately ambiguous, and unexpected moments of exquisite flourish and precision are all features that flank and surround the overall identity and vision of Morris’s voice. As such, much is surprising and to be gained through the patterns of readership without much expectancy and predictability. Through elements both magical and mysterious, Morris has a sincere, macrocosmic effect of discovery and arousal dispersed throughout Levon Helm. Perhaps, like the thorough and intangible life of the man that the book is named after, this effect is one representing an unburdening-yet-burgeoning empathy of worldly creation.
YR #51: Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba
Letters So That Happiness by Arnaldo Calveyra, Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Zuba (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Lost Literature Series #22
Everything rising came up from the eucalyptus, showering clean ash autumn from the burn. (41)
A skinny volume filled with squat, postcard-sized prose poems, Letters So That Happiness is as much about the worlds within each of its cartas as it is about the act of letter-writing itself. Arnaldo Calveyra’s first volume is also, coincidentally, contributing to the “lost literature” series of Ugly Duckling Presse. Curiously, Letters feels as lost (and searching) through its language as it may be lost in the English-language literary canon. Each poem fades in, mesmerizing cascades of scene-setting and environment-growing established within breaths, only to fade out toward the next blank space. The effect is an uncanny, paralyzing sense of grounded representation, flourished with pastoral roots and yet delivered with a bold and casual sense of realism.
Calveyra, raised in a rural, agrarian setting, son and grandson to cowboy culture, relays in this first book the setting for growth and cultivation. A surrealist farming of the mind, Letters explores and satisfies that essence of acknowledgment before and during the presented story, the periods of wakefulness and sharing. As such, the fleeting feeling of these works also feels staunchly intentional and directed, under the control of the poet. To think that the famous writer who lived through conflict and exile found flashing moments of grace and stability in an aroused, ethereal world of memory, wonder, and persistence envelopes the book in an aura of revelation and epiphany. The paradox of this eruptive sense is that the book never rings out with sensationalism, extremity, or even, more positively, ecstasy. The book seems ironically positioned in a relatively humble space for its young author; where the youthful energy would typically reign with arrogance and posturing, we instead find a book that is gentle, sorted, and withdrawn. And again, curiously, stable.
Suddenly, how wonderful! I came looking through loose autumn and slowed to a thistle beside the slide piled high with dead leaves. Wild! recently bloomed and gone into the raw milk. (29)
The searching, the seeking, the hum of a daily spirit finds anonymity in both voice and recipient of the letter form. The letters are not dated and do not contain anything but the messages themselves Though many of the scenes and characters within Calveyra’s poems in this book feel specific, feel explicitly known and thoroughly explored, the results of Calveyra’s poetics crafts more exuberant openness. A muffled beg of invitation, a soft plea for the transformed and transited, this is a book that further surprises with its direction of tone and messaging. The flutter feels surreal in its interpretable beginning, and it also feels drastically contextual in its leading qualities, its trims, its finer and more resplendent details. The reader may get what they give, as in the subtle splashes of our more intimately shared memories and dreams and interpretations, that sense of the vulnerable and the sealed shut coming together as an edge.
A smell that slipped early through the wooden slats, the wind’s latch: in the highest branches of all; the bustle of coming from water, that is, the change from wave to wind when it just can’t much more those few meters of beach. (9)
Poet and translator Elizabeth Zuba has admiringly carried this work into its full fruition, with direct help from both Arnaldo Calveyra and his son, Beltran. Zuba has demonstrated an inspiring diligence in working intensively through the original works, not just the cartas, to know Calveyra and to know him thoroughly. Her passage through Calveyra’s world by way of the poetry has been supplemented by his biography (included in this book), which is additionally mesmerizing and awestriking.
As Zuba’s lengthy exploration reveals, knowing the poet’s miraculous life and the process to the creation of this English translation are nearly as momentous as the poems themselves. Much like Calveyra spent many of his early years befriending and learning from Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Mastronardi, Zuba found a mirrored experience in getting to know and understand Calveyra through friendship and storytelling. Calveyra’s agreement to commit to the English translation is one of the reasons for the translation existing to begin with, says Zuba in the book’s conclusive remarks. Following his father’s 2015 death, Beltran Calveyra provided similarly significant information and influence as well, indicating additional, contextual qualities of legacy, respect, and the captivation of filial connection found through Letters. Details of the translation process, which explore Calveyra’s unique grammatical methods, complement the book’s inclusion of the original Spanish text.
I remember the kitchen in the boil of cold pockets and the mouth in the steam singing good morning. (13)
As with its achievement as a spellbinding set of poems that would go on to influence individual mid-20th Century writers and an Argentinian subculture of leftist political rebellion, the new achievement of this English translation has the potential to provide levels of influence and curiosity. From the canon of South American literature as a whole, to the =milieu of political poetry of the 20th Century, particularly in a complex Latin America infused with violence and expulsion, this book is a valuable addition. The whispered, beautiful testaments within Letters explores the juxtaposition that is reality for Calveyra and so many other poets: at the core of difficulty, challenge, and migration there are entrancing and rescuing moments of calm, joy, and illustrative movements toward a grounded, intact center.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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